On the heels of Hurricane Andrew, the battered people of south Florida were blasted by a rude mixture of hot air and coldness from Phoenix.
Call it Hurricane Lessner--named after the deputy editor of the editorial pages of the Arizona Republic.
A column by Richard Lessner that was reprinted in Miami provoked widespread angry reaction, but readers in Phoenix would have no way of knowing that, because Lessner and the Republic have run for cover and have suppressed news of the outcry he generated.
Bill Shover, spokesman for Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., which publishes the Republic and the Phoenix Gazette, said last Monday that he was not aware of the reaction of Floridians to Lessner's column. Neither Lessner nor his boss, editorial-page editor William P. Cheshire, returned calls from New Times. Shover, when asked for the newspapers' official comment, said, "The fact that you tried to contact the editor--that's probably what you ought to run."
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Lessner unleashed his fury two weeks after the most destructive natural disaster ever to hit the United States. His September 6 column, written from the safe haven of his Van Buren Street office, blasted Floridians for "sniveling" and "whining" for federal help after Andrew tore through the Miami area, killed 52 people and left 160,000 homeless. As Lessner put it: "Hey, you live in Florida, you're going to get hit by a hurricane every now and then."
Particularly painful to Floridians was the slew of bitter, highly personal words spewed by Lessner. These included: "whine," "crybabies," "bawling," "snivel," "whimper," "blubber," "squeal," "peevishness," "suckers," "tantrums." He ended his rant by writing, "Land of the free and home of the brave? Gimme a break."
"What a jerk," says Mac Seligman, whose apartment building in downtown Miami exploded. "He was pissing on us."
"It had the townspeople lighting the torches," says C. Randall Murray, editorial-page editor at the Boca Raton News, up the coast from Miami.
Seligman, Murray and at least 100 other people in Florida wrote or phoned the Republic after the Miami Herald reprinted Lessner's screed on September 20.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Herald made fun of Lessner, calling him "this Arizona jackass," and telephone calls and letters have poured into the Republic. But as of last Monday, the Republic hadn't published a single letter from Florida about Lessner's column.
In an ironic twist, Lessner even escaped the opening barrage of angry telephone calls. The Herald published the wrong office telephone number for Lessner, and Phoenix Gazette editorial writer Richard de Uriarte--the only liberal voice on either of the Phoenix papers' editorial-page staffs--wound up on the receiving end of Lessner's critics.
"I thought somebody was going to shoot me over the phone," says de Uriarte. More than 20 people left messages on de Uriarte's voice-mail office number the day after the Herald printed Lessner's column.
Herald editor Jim Hampton says that about 100 people have sent him copies of faxes they had sent to Lessner and that he's surprised the Republic hasn't published any of them.
"If I write something and I get negative reaction, I feel obligated to print it," says Hampton. "We even give preference to comments disagreeing with us. We give them more priority than those that are pats on the back. I certainly would have printed a selection of letters."
Murray agrees, saying, "I think they have an obligation to tell their readers they got a boot in the ass."
It's not unusual for a newspaper to ignore its local critics, but editorial writers generally have a collegial attitude toward their peers on distant newspapers, and editors--including the Republic's--routinely print commentaries from outside pundits who disagree with in-house writers. However, the Republic hasn't even returned calls from fellow editors in Florida.
A frustrated Murray finally called Steve Wilson, editor of the Scottsdale Progress, which published Murray's response to Lessner on September 29.
"Whiners and snivelers, eh, Mr. Lessner?" Murray wrote. "Why not pack up your malicious cynicism and wander down to south Florida and catch the complainers firsthand? I'm sure the tens of thousands of folks who lost their homes, their cars, their jobs, their possessions--everything--would like to meet you. . . .
"Let's put this horror on a scale that you folks in Maricopa County might comprehend. Consider Paradise Valley, Scottsdale, Tempe leveled--smashed as if a giant with an attitude had tromped through."
(Murray understates it. Throw in Mesa, too. A tour reveals that the area still looks like a nuclear-war zone except for the thousands of residents hard at work with hammers and saws, trying to resurrect their homes from rubble.)
And what do Andrew's victims have to say about Hurricane Lessner?
Bill Talbert says he can't remember exactly what he wrote in his faxed letter to the Republic, but he adds, "I know it started out: 'You're a jerk.'"
Talbert does recall hiding in a closet with his family while Hurricane Andrew "roared like a freight train" from 3 to 7 a.m. on August 24. And he remembers how it took a crew of 15 men almost two days' work with chain saws and handsaws to chop a path through fallen trees to his house.
"That 'whining' reference," Talbert says of Lessner's column. "How about 'tears'? Please. How about 'death'? Please."
Carolyn Cheatwood, who had been evacuated, wasn't able to even see her house until two days after the storm. This is what she remembers: "The whole neighborhood was demolished. In our master bedroom, at the back of the house, our papers were everywhere. The ceiling and the bed had collapsed. Our bedspread was lying in our front yard. It was really eerie. All the trees were brown."
Cheatwood says she tried to be "composed" in her letter to Lessner, in which she wrote: "Your column made me sick. . . . Most American people are so compassionate and caring they need to cry out in panic when they see for themselves a terrible, terrible thing they cannot understand, and all they know is they need help. . . . Only snivelers could write a column such as you wrote."
The Herald has publicly offered to pay all expenses if Lessner will visit, and to print anything Lessner chooses to write afterward. But Hampton says Lessner and Cheshire haven't responded.
Hampton does say Lessner's point about how the United States is no longer a self-reliant culture is "well-taken." "But not the example he used," Hampton adds. "Nobody who's seen the damage would write this. I've been editor here for 15 years, and I can't even remember writing a column criticizing a colleague for expressing an opinion. He certainly has a First Amendment right to express his opinion, but I felt his piece was simply irresponsible. . . . I felt it was cruel and totally uncalled-for. And I don't think those of us who have control of a press should use our power that way."
What exactly did Lessner say in his column?
Among other barbs, he wrote that "Floridians were peeved because the federal government had not rebuilt the stricken parts of their state before dawn broke the day after the storm. . . ."
Lessner moaned that Americans now "squander our energies in accusatory whining" and "never let up on sniveling."
"Crybaby Americans could do with a dose of Russian realism," he wrote. "Take it from a people who know suffering when it hits them smack in the face--life is hard, and then you die."
(Life is hard? Some people who have worked with Lessner at the Republic may recall his daily routine in the mid-Eighties of taking extended coffee breaks practically every afternoon in the newspaper's cafeteria with two or three of his office pals. Lessner's co-workers derisively referred to his little group as it routinely trouped through the newsroom as the "Richard Lessner Coffee Klatsch.)
Readers in Phoenix may not be surprised by Lessner's imperious writing (I regard my political thinking as radical and revolutionary), though he always has kind words for the things he loves: fly-fishing and Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi. The invective in his Hurricane Andrew column, however, stunned even hardened editors Hampton and Murray. However, they're more surprised that the Republic is ignoring criticism.
"It appears you do not tolerate dissent well," Murray wrote in a letter last week to Cheshire. "I say that based on your failure to acknowledge the critical reaction from folks in Miami to Mr. Lessner's column--as well as your ignoring me. That's too bad. . . . Denying your readers access to that sort of give-and-take provides them with a shallow and single-minded view of the world."
Murray closed his letter with a droll touch: "I do hope this is not perceived as whining and sniveling."
Like Murray and Hampton and many other Floridians, hurricane survivor Patrick Morrison invited Lessner to see the damage for himself. "Certainly, after a hands-on look," Morrison wrote, "you could write a second . . . piece from the perspective of 'now that I've been there.' Even if you don't change your position, you will have at least given us a sense of fair play--that you actually looked at our situation and you were not just simply dealing in word games . . . and mental masturbation from 2,000 miles away."
Miami is actually 2,348 miles from Phoenix.